How Translation Software Can Break Barriers

But can it measure up to human translators?

Key Takeaways

  • A wide range of new software programs can translate speech so you can chat with people speaking different languages over video. 
  • Webex is introducing a new real-time translation feature to its conferencing software. 
  • But not everyone thinks that translation software is ready for prime time.
Multicultural video call as seen through the computer screen.
Jasmin Merdan / Getty Images

New software translates your video chats in real time but some experts say it doesn’t measure up to human translations. 

Webex is introducing a new real-time translation feature to its conferencing software. The feature will allow you to translate from English to more than 100 languages. The need for translation software is growing as more people spend time on video calls during the pandemic. 

"The transformation of the workplace during the pandemic has accelerated the uses for real-time translation," Michael Stevens, a vice president at Translated, a company that uses both human translators and artificial intelligence.

"Everyone regardless of location or spoken language can now understand and be understood like never before, and enterprise companies are requiring accessibility in their products. No longer do participants just need to get by with limited comprehension because of language in meetings."

Connecting Immigrants to Lawyers

For some people, translation software is a necessity. A company called Abogados Now uses real-time translation software to connect Spanish speakers with attorneys. 

"Giving newly immigrated persons in the US a chance at speaking to companies without the fear of being judged for their inability to speak English is a game-changer," Hugo E. Gomez, the president of the company, said in an email interview.

"It opens up new opportunities for communities that are historically challenged due to a small but meaningful obstacle: the language barrier."

Abogados Now uses Skype’s real-time translator. "We find that there is a high adoption rate of Skype among US-based English and Spanish-speaking consumers," Gomez said. "It isn’t perfect technology, but can be effective if needed in a pinch."

A business person listening to a language translator during a meeting.
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Translated claims its software takes less than a second to translate speech. This product has been selected by the European Parliament to automatically transcribe and translate multilingual parliamentary debates in real-time, covering the 24 official languages of the institution.

"Politicians are difficult enough to understand if you speak their language, and impossible if you don't," Stevens said.

"The EU Parliament, for example, has debates that could take place in any combination of their 24 official languages, making understanding for a citizen impossible. Translated has the world’s first human-in-the-loop speech translation, so that any citizen can receive and understand the debate in their language on their phone or web browser."

Humans Vs. Machines

But not everyone thinks that translation software is ready for prime time. Fardad Zabetian, conferencing and language interpretation entrepreneur, said machines fall short. 

"Translation software, often referred to as machine translation, will be useful for people who want to get the gist of a meeting or speech," Zabetian, who is now the CEO of the firm KUDO, which provides translation on video platforms via human translators, said in an email interview.

"In spoken language, intonation, facial expressions, repetition, and the use of sarcasm and irony may totally alter the meaning of a sentence, and current machine translation solutions do not accurately capture this."

Someone hoding a smartphone with a word cloud above it that includes the word 'translate' and numerous languages.
gesrey / Getty Images

When the stakes are high and accuracy matters, trained professional interpreters are the best solution, Zabetian contends. Studies show that 80% of communication is transmitted by non-verbal cues such as body language that cannot be understood by machine translation.

"Today, the available AI is simply not capable of performing the split-second cognitive gymnastics that guides professional interpreters to break down language barriers while operating under the context of neutrality, fidelity, and legality," he added. 

To prove his point, Zabetian told the story of how researchers once developed a machine that could render any sentence into Sanskrit from English and back. They said the software was trained to go beyond just syntax and accommodate casual, even slang speech. 

The British ambassador attended the product launch and, at the request of the host, typed into the system the following sentence: "Out of sight, out of mind," Zabetian said.

"Out came a series of Sanskrit characters," he added. "The ambassador then asked for that string of text to be fed back into the machine, and the hosts promptly complied. After just a few seconds, the machine produced a perfectly meaningful sentence in English. It read: 'A blind idiot!'"

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